Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Double Life of "Sanction"

Sarah Palin's political opponents made hay out of her gaffe last Wednesday, when she said on Glenn Beck's radio show that "We gotta stand with our North Korean allies," when she meant "South Korean allies." Palin fought back with a Thanksgiving Facebook message that pointed to numerous slips of the tongue by President Obama. I don't find her "North Korean" error particularly remarkable (she was swiftly corrected by Beck, and she didn't confuse North and South Korea elsewhere in her remarks). I was more interested in what she said before that: "We're not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea is going to do." Was her use of sanction also erroneous?

News reports seemed to imply that Palin's use of sanction was a secondary gaffe. Huma Khan of ABC News reported:

It is unclear though whether Palin was then talking about sanctions against North Korea, or U.S. sanctioning — i.e., approving or supporting — its actions.

Similarly, Tucker Reals of CBS News wrote:

It's unclear whether she referenced the correct Korea and simply misused the term "sanction" — which, as stated, means to approve or validate, or if she meant to say South Korea, the U.S. ally, in reference to any actions that nation may take in retaliation to past or future attacks from the North.

Reals continued, "One might even have missed that gaffe, had she not said just seconds later: 'Obviously, we gotta stand with our North Korean allies.'" It's true that the subsequent "North Korean" flub muddies our interpretation of what Palin meant by sanction, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she really was talking about North Korea and not South Korea here. If, as the ABC and CBS reporters seem to insist, sanction can only mean "to approve," then it would appear that Palin said the opposite of what she meant.

Sanction, however, is one of those tricky words that can actually mean its opposite, depending on context. Some (but not all) dictionaries recognize the ambiguity of the verb: Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, and Webster's New World only recognize a positive, approving meaning, while American Heritage, Oxford, and Random House allow that the verb can also mean "to penalize," which would fit Palin's usage.

A word that can encompass two opposing meanings has been variously called a "Janus-faced word," a "contronym," or an "auto-antonym." Another common example is cleave, which can mean either "separate" or "hold together." And as I wrote in Word Routes in 2008, the word subprime can either refer to a lending rate that is below the prime rate or above it, curiously enough.

The Janus-faced nature of sanction is more evident when it is used as a noun. Originally from a Latin verb meaning "to render sacred or inviolable," the noun sanction historically referred to the "action of ordaining as inviolable under a penalty," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In English, the word headed in two directions — one relating to legal or ethical rules, and one relating to penalties against infringing such rules. Since the eighteenth century, the verb formed from sanction has generally accorded with the positive sense, as when Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography of preserving "the very words of the established law, wherever their meaning had been sanctioned by judicial decisions."

As Robert Burchfield explained in his 1996 revision of Henry W. Fowler's Modern English Usage, the negative meaning of the verb as "penalize" did not arise until the mid-twentieth century. Burchfield wrote that examples of this sense are "sparse," and that "this new use, though logical enough as a parallel to the main current sense of the noun, has only debatable currency and acceptability in the standard language." Bryan Garner elaborated on this in his Modern American Usage: those who use the "penalize" sense (such as lawyers) are "likely to be misunderstood," so it is preferable to say "issue sanctions against" to make the disapproval unambiguous.

Palin was indeed misunderstood — at least by the ABC and CBS reporters, who perhaps consulted Webster's New World (the journalist's go-to dictionary) and found only the positive meaning of the verb sanction. But it would be entirely unfair to treat her usage as erroneous, since it can now be found frequently in journalistic writing. Take, for instance, the coverage of Rep. Charlie Rangel's ethical violations. (Rangel was found guilty of 11 violations by the House ethics committee and now faces a formal reprimand or more serious censure from the House as a whole.) A sampling:

The full committee is set to sanction Rangel tomorrow — imposing a punishment that could range from a reprimand to expulsion.
New York Daily News (Nov. 16)

Rep. Charlie Rangel offered a final plea to the House ethics committee Thursday before the panel convened a closed-door session to determine how to sanction the New York Democrat for his repeated violations of the chamber's rules.
Roll Call (Nov. 18)

Rangel, who rarely sticks to a script, released prepared remarks for a House ethics committee hearing that will decide how he should be sanctioned.
CNBC/AP (Nov. 18)

Charlie Rangel Sanctioned By House Ethics Committee
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov. 18)

Rangel would be the first lawmaker sanctioned by the full House since Ohio Democrat Jim Traficant was expelled in 2002.
Bloomberg (Nov. 18)

In fact, the "penalize" meaning of sanction was used two years ago referring to Palin herself: during the flap in Alaska over the "Troopergate" scandal, USA Today reported that "lawmakers don't have the authority to sanction her for such a violation."

Fair is fair: if it's acceptable for reporters to use sanction in this way to discuss the penalties faced by Rangel, it should be equally acceptable for Palin to use it when talking about international sanctions placed on North Korea. No need to have a repeat of Refudiate-Gate!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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